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Fargo Hopes To Fill 1 Million Sandbags As Floods Continue In The Great Plains05:32
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In Fargo, North Dakota, residents are being asked help the city make 1 million sandbags ahead of potentially disastrous flooding. (Courtesy city of Fargo)
In Fargo, North Dakota, residents are being asked help the city make 1 million sandbags ahead of potentially disastrous flooding. (Courtesy city of Fargo)
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Communities throughout the Midwest and Great Plains are still reeling from devastating floods that swept through the region earlier this week. However, the threat is not over for Fargo, North Dakota, where the mayor has declared a state of emergency in anticipation of potentially record-setting flooding along the banks of the Red River.

“We're all getting ready,” says Fargo's mayor, Dr. Tim Mahoney, who is calling on volunteers to help fill 1 million sandbags ahead of flooding. “We're a little nervous about what's headed towards our way.”

In 2009, the city received a record-breaking 40.84 inches of flooding, Mahoney tells Here & Now’s Peter O’Dowd. Now, forecasters are predicting 42 inches, and if there’s more rain and snowmelt in April, that number could be pushed even higher.

“Nebraska's footage is horrible, and what happened in that community — you just get very concerned about if we get a freak weather system that drops a lot of water on us that could really make this flood fight much different,” he says.

However, the city, which relies on volunteers to help with the flood fight, has a lot less preparation to do than it did prior to the ‘09 flood, he says.

“In 2009, … we needed 6.5 million bags,” says Mahoney, “so we call a million bags a lot easier to do.”

Interview Highlights

On the process of filling the sandbags

“In our previous flood fights, we've kind of learned how to do this. So we call a machine called a Spider. … It has eight legs that come down off the Spider that give sand, and they grab them and put a sand bag underneath them to fill it with sand, tie it off and put it on the pallets. ... So we run two Spiders — it takes 200 people — and [it's] a wonderful exercise of making sandbags.”

"One of the things you'll find about Fargo is evacuation is not an option. So, we will always work as vigorous as we can to win a flood fight."

Dr. Tim Mahoney

On who helps operate the Spiders

“They usually come from all over the community. … Middle-schoolers just love to do sandbags, so do high-school kids. So sometimes we reach from them, and then the other people are the businesses in town: Your banks and your different people will help us out in this regard.”

On where the sandbags get placed in the city

“We've done a lot of dikes and done a lot of walls, so we have some neighborhoods that just would need some sort of sandbags in the back for as a primary defense. ... That's where we put it in, in neighborhoods and houses, behind those houses.”

On the work the city has done since 2009 to prevent further flooding

“We've done about $438 million worth of work throughout the city, and we've bought out homes that were along the river, torn them down and put up clay dikes in those situations. In areas that are closer to the city or closer to homes, we've also put in concrete dikes that have gone up by about 44 feet. So we have a lot more protection than we had at the time of 2009, and our need for diking and sandbags in 2009 was 52 miles. We now have that down to 20 miles.”

On whether residents will have to be ordered to evacuate their home

“One of the things you'll find about Fargo is evacuation is not an option. So, we will always work as vigorous as we can to win a flood fight. I anticipate that that option would be out.

“Here's the issue you have with that: The best people to watch the dikes or the walls are the people that live in those houses. So what we always do in that consideration is we want people in the community to help us fight the flood. [In 2009,] we had 100,000 volunteers, but our key volunteers were along the dikes. Oftentimes, those are homeowners. So they would patrol the dikes every hour, and it's something that's a little more personal when you're worried about your home. So we find out, it'd be very hard for us to ever consider evacuation.”


Chris Bentley produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtJackson Cote adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on March 22, 2019.

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Peter O'Dowd Twitter Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.

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